News Analysis: Decision to Give Up Youth Aliyah Will Focus Jewish Agency Mission
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News Analysis: Decision to Give Up Youth Aliyah Will Focus Jewish Agency Mission

In striking a dramatic deal last week to transfer the Youth Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel to the Israeli government, the agency’s Board of Governors basically decided to amputate a leg to save the patient.

The bleeding was that bad.

Faced with runaway deficits that could doom the Jewish Agency to financial insolvency, the Board of Governors had little choice but to enter into this gut-wrenching deal with the government.

The move is an integral part of a radical recovery plan approved by the Board of Governors to slash a half billion dollars over the next five years from the budget of the agency, a huge social-service organization supported by Diaspora fund-raising dollars.

The decision, according to Jewish Agency brass, emerged from a consensus belief that the organization would be better off if it divested itself totally of one division rather than hobble all the others through unremitting bloodletting.

By transferring Youth Aliyan and the 15,000 children now studying under the aegis of the department to the government in September 1996, the Jewish Agency will save $60 million annually. During the next few weeks, the agency will cut another $50 million from its budget to reduce expenditures by $110 million during the 1996-97 fiscal year.

Agency and government officials promised that the changeover would not adversely affect Youth Aliyah youngsters and that each Youth Aliyah village would maintain its unique educational and religious identity.

As for the Na’aleh 16 program, which brings teen-agers from the Soviet successor states to Israel on a study program aimed at encouraging aliyah, the government will assume all funding, and Jewish Agency personnel stationed in the region will continue to canvass for candidates.

In return, the Jewish Agency agreed to assume full responsibility for the Student Authority, a $45 million program whose cost has been split until now between the government’s Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency.

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg promises to turn the Student Authority into a highly attractive “flag bearer” for the agency, to lure talented young people from the Diaspora to make aliyah.

Two basic principles lay behind the Youth Aliyah-Student swap. First, whoever funds an operation should run it. Second, the Jewish Agency should concentrate on aliyah and initial absorption of immigrants, while the sovereign government of Israel assumes full responsibility for the long-term absorption of its citizens, including settlement, education and welfare.

In the past, overlap between the government and the Jewish Agency in the area of immigrant absorption hurt the agency, “causing an erosion in our reputation,” said Burg.

The key to recovery, said Charles “Corky” Goodman of Chicago, chairman of the Board of Governors, is creating a “new, long-term partnership” with the government that draws “clear lines defining our separate responsibilities.”

But how does one define the “clear line” line between where “initial absorption” ends and “long-term absorption” begins?

One example, said Uri Gordon, director of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, is funding of Hebrew instruction for new immigrants. The Jewish Agency will continue to fund initial “ulpan” classes for new arrivals, but the government will have to find ways to support immigrants wishing to continue on the next level, he said.

But some fear that the division of authority will not always be so clear and that, as a result, some program beneficiaries may fall through the gaps.

For instance, Ethiopians, because of their unique background, require considerable help beyond their initial absorption.

Because they have all been in Israel for some time, does Diaspora Jewry simply hand over full responsibility for their absorption to the government? Is the government capable and willing to take on this sensitive, extended challenge?

Jewish Agency officials admit that they do not yet have solid answers of these questions. One reason may be that, according to agency insiders, they simply were not ready for the kind of deal the government offered.

These insiders say that Burg and his allies never expected to surrender all of Youth Aliyah; they expected some sort of government “partnership” in it.

Just two months ago, Burg was quoted as saying that Youth Aliyah is “more than just a good program – it serves our target” and is “essential to the education of new immigrants.”

So why, a month later, would he agree to give up the whole program?

Because, Jewish Agency sources say, the government gave his time a take-it-or- leave-it offer, engineered by Youth Aliyah Chairman Yehiel Leket.

Recall that before being beaten by Burg, Leket was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s choice for Jewish Agency chairman. He is said to still have a loyal following in Jewish Agency and Labor Party circles. Sources say Leket was not interested in having his division be under the influence of Chairman Burg in any way, and his allies complied.

Although seemingly outflanked on the political end, Burg can “still come out smelling like roses,” said one Jewish Agency insider. The chairman had said something radical needed to be done to save the Jewish Agency, and he “produced a deal that will free up dollars for him to use as he sees fit.”

But that’s all Israeli politics.

In in the Diaspora camp, fund-raisers were generally upbeat. Many expressed the belief that a more concentrated focus would be good for fund raising, because it will help them market the Jewish Agency’s activities more effectively.

This is something the United Jewish Appeal and Jewish federations in North America “have not been able to do effectively until now,” said Bennett Aaron of Philadelphia, a member of the Board of Governors.

The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient of funds raised for overseas needs by the UJA and Jewish community federations. The agency received $201 million in funding in 1994, $30 million less than in 1993.

Most federations have reduced the percentage of annual campaign proceeds they allocate to Israel from 60 percent a decade ago to a current average of approximately 40 percent.

Federations will now be expected to do more to save the Jewish Agency. In fact, the viability of the recovery program rests on Diaspora fund-raisers’ pledge to raise an additional $230 million over the next five years.

But considering the environment in which they work, the challenge to Diaspora fundraisers to keep end of the bargain will be formidable. Here’s why: * Trends indicate that federation are leaning towards reducing allocations to Israel in order to deal with growing problems at home, such as rapid simulation and Republican-driven budget cuts that are crippling local social services. * Many donors are now more inclined to give to specific causes, as indicated in the significant rise in giving to hospitals, schools and universities over the years, and not to a broad menu of services, such as those supported by the UJA. * In jettisoning Youth Aliyah from the Jewish Agency umbrella, the UJA may have lost one of its best-selling “kishka” programs.

So how will the recovery plan, while an impressive budget buster, help fund- raisers put more money back into the pipeline? By improving the Jewish Agency’s focus and marketability, say agency leaders.

“Our leadership wants to see a healthy instrument which is strong and has vision,” said Rabbi Harvey Fields of Los Angeles, a member of the Board of Governors. “Approval of this plan gives the agency this.”

Richard Pearlstone, national chairman, of UJA, agrees. “Now we have a focus – aliyah and absorption – and that’s what sells,” he said.

Still, a few fund-raisers voiced doubts as to the immediate impact of the Board of Governors’ decisions on local communities.

“Most donors are totally tuned out to the details of the agency’s programs and would give me a blank stare if I told them Youth Aliyah was cut out,” said Aaron of Philadelphia. “They simply trust the leadership and follow their guidance.”

Still, most agreed that the impact of the recovery plan would, sooner or later, be positive for communal fund raising.

“If nothing else, we prepared the solid ground to move into the future,” said Tom Falik of Atlanta, chairman of the Board of Governor’s Budget Subcommittee on Aliyah and Absorption. “We are now positioned to do aliyah and absorption the way it’s supposed to be done – and our donors will like that.”

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